Why driverless plows could be the future of snow removal

It's been a snowy winter that's kept city crews busy clearing our roads.

And while many Calgarians would like to see more plows on the streets, that comes at a cost and most of it's related to labour.

"For one piece of equipment you have to look at four additional staff members," said Bill Biensch with the city's roads department. "You have to run seven days a week, 24 hours a day."

But what if we only needed the machines and not the drivers? It's an idea that students across North America have been toying with for the last seven years at the Autonomous Snowplow Competition.

Vibhor Bageshwar co-chairs the annual winter competition and joined the Calgary Eyopener on Tuesday to talk about the future of snow removal.

Q: Are there any cities using autonomous snowplows yet?

A: There is a test program in a city in Alaska that comes to mind. The real key here in trying to get an autonomous snowplow is having the vehicle in snowy conditions with a lot of snow on the ground, figure out where it is laterally on the road. So if you imagine Deerfoot Trail as an example. It has multiple lanes, and if there's snow covering the entire freeway, then it's very difficult for the plow to know where it is. That is the toughest problem in this sort of thing.  

Q: How close are we to solving that problem and getting these things out on the roads?

A: The real thing about autonomy is moving decision-making capability from a human operator entirely to the vehicle, or to have one person supervise multiple vehicles at once. Really, it's not just 'where are you on the road,' but ... do you have decision-making abilities on board the plow so it can handle nominal conditions and things that can happen out of the ordinary. 

Q: So what happens at this autonomous snowplow competition?

A: The competition is designed to challenge students to design and build a robotic snowplow that autonomously plows snow from shapes on the ground. We simulate a sidewalk, we simulate a driveway. And the students have additional challenges. They have to start and stop from a garage, and they have to avoid stationary and non-stationary obstacles.

Q: And how effective are these machines?

A: They're very effective.The top teams that have graduate students are able to completely plow these shapes and get everything, including the edges and corners. They're entirely autonomous. The students have to autonomously allow the vehicle to determine where it is relative to the path they're plowing. They have to allow the vehicle to have decision-making capabilities on board so that the vehicle knows how to avoid an obstacle, how to detect an obstacle ... and also how to turn around and return to the garage all by itself. 

Q: This sounds like it could be a major cost-saver for municipalities across North America.

A: It is. With an autonomous snowplow, the plow could operate 24 hours a day without having the human operator on board, without having anyone switch, without having to wait for someone to go to the bathroom or take a coffee break. These could be going continuously and there would then be no problem when, as soon as there's a snowfall, you can deploy the vehicles. 

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener